Sustainability: Celebrating a new approved learning frameworks principle - Part 1

This two part series has been contributed by Dr Sue Elliott, Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of New England, NSW.
Indoor recycling station

PART ONE - Sustainability: The history and literature

At the start of this year, the refreshed approved learning frameworks for Australia (AGDE, 2022) were published. The new sustainability principle incorporated into the frameworks is cause for much celebration. Defining sustainability is challenging, but the frameworks draw on international literature and policy to view sustainability as multi-dimensional. 

Sustainability is often described as an interplay between social, economic and environmental dimensions that promotes intergenerational equity, the overall intent being to secure healthy future generations for all species. In this article, I briefly explore how we arrived at this policy milestone, why a new principle is critical now, and consider what all educators can be doing to embed the sustainability principle into practice. 

How did we arrive at this policy milestone?  

Some three decades ago, perhaps before many even considered a career in early childhood education and care, state-based professional networks were first established to advocate for the inclusion of environmental education in the early childhood field by offering resources and professional learning. 

Many of the sentiments and practices shared in the initial Australian publications related to environmental education (Elliott & Emmett, 1991; Gordon Community Children’s Centre Technical College, 1993) are still highly valid today - perhaps even more urgent to address. However, at the time, those educators that engaged in environmental education were perceived as marginal ‘greenies’ and not part of mainstream early childhood education, hence the later publication Early childhood environmental education: Making it mainstream (Davis & Elliott, 2003). 

Fast forward two decades, the terminology has shifted to sustainability and there are now a range of publications offering guidance around early childhood education for sustainability (ECEfS) (Carr, Elliott & Ärlemalm-Hagsér, 2021; Davis, 2015; Early Childhood Australia, 2021; Elliott & Davis, in press; Gaul & Watson, 2019). 

In addition, international sustainability education reports and policies are now more often inclusive of early childhood education (The International Commission on the Futures of Education, 2021; UNESCO, 2017). However, national curriculum policies have been slow to adjust. Currently only a handful of countries internationally, such as New Zealand, South Korea, Norway and Sweden, embrace sustainability within early childhood education policy (Elliott, Ärlemalm-Hagsér & Davis, 2020). Hence, the call for an Australian policy milestone celebration! 

Why is a new sustainability principle critical now?

There is no shortage of media and scientific reports about the urgency of addressing climate change for sustainable futures (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2021). As average global temperatures increase, we are witnessing more extreme weather events including droughts, wildfires and floods. These events are having significant impacts for young children and their families as well as their educators and early childhood services.  

Impacts might range from limited food and water to family dislocation or injury and children are in the midst of these events, possibly bewildered or overwhelmed. A Sydney Morning Herald report by Naylor (2022) about children and families who experienced the Lismore, NSW floods is compelling. 

During the developmentally significant ages from birth to eight years, these impacts are a major cause for concern as reported in the Lancet (Clark et al., 2020). Global sustainability and children’s health and well-being are inextricably linked and now the climate crisis is eroding children’s fundamental rights (UN, 2023). Children’s rights and agency in determining their healthy and sustainable futures must be central to any discussion of the sustainability principle in a curriculum context. 

What can all educators be doing to embed this new principle into practice?

Embedding the new principle requires children and educators to positively engage every day in advocacy and transformative change towards sustainable ways of thinking and acting. You might be just beginning to engage with sustainability in response to the revised frameworks, or perhaps you have explored sustainability deeply for some time. 

Wherever you are on this continuum, it’s important to remember that being a sustainable early childhood service does not have an endpoint, it’s about the ongoing journey. Bringing children, educators, families and community along with you is key. This is very much a shared and collaborative endeavour which involves more than the tokenistic installation of a worm farm. It must be a determined and transformative effort to explore with children our interdependencies with the Earth’s systems and investigate how we might protect and regenerate the Earth through ongoing sustainability practices.

Starting points are offered here, particularly for those new to thinking about ECEfS. To incorporate these new practices into your service, begin by: 

  • Firstly, connecting with the established Australian Early Childhood Education for Sustainability (ECEfS) networks across Australia; 
  • Secondly, engage in personal professional learning through texts or websites to deepen your understandings of sustainability; 
  • Thirdly, participate in shared critical reflection about educator pedagogies for promoting sustainability; and, 
  • Lastly, extend and deepen your thinking around the sustainability principle.  

In part two of the blog, we will look more closely at how services can source guidance material and access professional networks to broaden their knowledge and support the implementation of all sustainability dimensions within their practice.